Tackling the issue of sustainability in health

A team of paramedic students sit around a table and contemplate the oxygen mask placed before them. A question hangs in the air – how would you manufacture such a vital piece of medical equipment if plastic was no longer available?

What if geopolitical unrest, or in the longer term climate change, should create a shortage in key manufacturing resources. Would the health sector be prepared? Or would patient care and treatment be placed at risk? And what about clinical waste? Can the sector continue to afford to dispose of materials when the financial costs are so high?

These questions might appear hypothetical to some, but they are being confronted head on thanks to an interdisciplinary module at Plymouth University that brings together students from nursing and the health professions with their contemporaries in design.

Nursing Sustainability by Design

We do this for our students – inspiring them with real-world challenges and the chance to work with those from other disciplines so that they can see new perspectives.

A short video on the new sustainability skills approach that brings together nursing and health students, with designers

‘Nursing Sustainability by Design’ is entering its second full year, having undergone a pilot phase and then a roll out to around 350 nursing and midwifery undergraduates in 2013. Already it is creating interest, with the academic leads invited to present their findings at major international conferences, and a shortlisting in the Green Gown Awards – the most prestigious awards programme for sustainability in education. 

Professor Janet Richardson has been one of the driving forces behind the project, working with colleagues in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, and those in Education for Sustainable Development and the School of Architecture, Design and Environment to ensure the module is now embedded in the curriculum.

“Many items used in everyday health practice are made from natural materials that are finite or affected by climate change or other geopolitical factors,” Janet says. “They are an intrinsic part of our health system, and how we use and dispose of them goes beyond a simple cost-based discussion for healthcare and becomes something of significance to the planet.”

“By bringing together our nursing and design students, we are challenging their assumptions, and using their different perspectives to do something really different,” adds Janet Kelsey, Associate Professor in Health Studies. “It’s unlike anything else in nursing education in the country.”

It is during the clinical skills sessions, where nurses learn some of the practical abilities they’ll need during their careers, that the design students are brought in to observe, and then later take part in discussions around sustainability. They are then encouraged to respond holistically, generating a range of ideas to innovate product and packaging at a local or industry-wide level.

“We have put a lot of commitment into embedding sustainability in our design curriculum,” says Mike Woods, Lecturer in 3D Design. “And we’re always looking for ways to make that relevant and exciting for the students. If we can find collaborative practice that shows this is shared thinking, collectively we can address complex and challenging issues in a way that isn’t a ‘disaster scenario’. It can be about opportunities to improve the world we live in.”

Even in the space of one year, two prototypes have been developed and are being tested by students and academics. They include a device to re-seal packaging and a re-usable clinical dressing pack, both of which could potentially assist with training and practising skills and reducing waste.

Janet says: 

“We have a great team who have really embraced sustainability and together we think we have found a way to teach students about how their practice affects and is impacted by climate change and natural resource depletion.” 

 Dr Jane Grose, Research Fellow in Sustainability, adds: 

“I think the most significant things we have achieved are that we have developed a way of teaching sustainability to nurses that is relevant to their practice and changes attitudes, and that students learn to work with other disciplines which is something they will need to do when they have qualified. The fact that our students are co-creating sustainable solutions and actual products that we can test and commercialise is a testament to the way they have embraced it.”

While the Nursing and Midwifery Council has yet to recommend that nurses and midwives have knowledge and skills relating to sustainability, Janet sees it as the University’s duty to prepare its graduates so that they can adapt and thrive in changing environments.

Dr Jane Grose, School of Nursing and Midwifery

I think the most significant things we have achieved are that we have developed a way of teaching sustainability to nurses that is relevant to their practice and changes attitudes, and that students learn to work with other disciplines.

It’s a message Janet and her team have taken to conferences around Europe, such as Nurse Education Today in the Netherlands, and the International Children’s Nursing Conference in Jersey. They have also delivered skills sessions and presentations to fellow institutions including universities in Maastricht, Esslingen (Germany) and Jaen (Spain) and Lausanne (Switzerland)

This year, 1,350 nursing and midwifery, and paramedic students will participate, along with 20 design students – and discussions are underway to include dental students from the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry. The team is also developing a Sustainability and Health Skills e-tool training package for release in January 2015, which will include scenarios that are relevant to a range of healthcare practitioners and could be used in health and social care organisations as well as HEIs. 

“We’ve come a long way in a short space of time – but the possibilities are very exciting,” adds Janet. “But we do this for our students – inspiring them with real-world challenges and the chance to work with those from other disciplines so that they can see new perspectives.” 

The shortlisting for the Green Gown in the Learning and Courses category was one of three that Plymouth received in 2014. The work of the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise – a community interest company that enables students and staff to run community programmes and initiatives – was shortlisted in Enterprise, while the University’s catering team was shortlisted in Food and Drink for their commitment to ethical and local sourcing.

Sustainability in the School of Nursing and Midwifery

Sustainability is integral to the University of Plymouth, the city is realising the concept of the 'Sustainable University'

Nursing Sustainability by Design project wins Green Gown Award 2014

Learn more about our focus on sustainability